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Toledo's Critics Taking a Risk

College football: UCLA coach fires back after he is accused of being conservative.

October 21, 2000|BILL SHAIKIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bob Toledo wants you to like him. He really does. He'll shake your hand, pose for a snapshot with your family, smile and thank you for supporting the Bruins. You could call him a bad coach, and he might not agree, but he would still thank you for your interest.

If you want to wipe the smile off Toledo's face, though, call him a conservative coach. Many UCLA alumni and students did just that this week, and they touched a very sensitive nerve. Rather than hide his hurt, as most coaches would do, Toledo acknowledged he was stung by the criticism.

"It gets me mad," Toledo said. "I'm not conservative. It bothers me in that I know I'm not conservative.

"Now maybe I'm not as wild as some people want me to be. They want me to play video games--you push this button, that guy runs deep, you throw, boom, touchdown! We're not playing video games."

The coach who captured the imagination of Southern California during the Bruins' 20-game winning streak of 1997-98, with trick plays galore and Cade McNown throwing bombs on any and all downs, is now a coach under fire for unimaginative play calling.

With UCLA playing Oregon State today, the bitterest bashers took to chat rooms and talk shows this week, wondering how the Bruins might hire Coach Dennis Erickson away from the Beavers--for his creative offense.

Toledo did not suffer the criticism silently. A creative offense, after all, is his calling card.

So, after practice the other day, he greeted reporters with a statistical summary of last week's loss to California that would have done Ross Porter proud.

Did you know, Toledo asked, that UCLA passed on 17 of 34 first downs, passed 40 times in all, passed 15 times with the quarterback out of the pocket, passed on fourth and one?

Toledo loves his trick plays, and it did not help his cause when all three failed last week. Drew Bennett lost two yards on an option, Tab Perry lost five on a reverse, and Ed Ieremia-Stansbury threw incomplete on a halfback option.

But the most pointed criticism was directed at a sequence in the fourth quarter, when the Bruins started a drive at their 43 with 4:15 left and the score tied, 28-28. On a day when tailback Jermaine Lewis ran 16 times for 15 yards and the Bruins ran 45 times for 45 yards, Toledo chose to run Lewis up the middle twice. He lost three yards, quarterback Cory Paus threw incomplete on third down, and the Bruins headed to overtime. (Paus had to call an audible on the first run, Toledo said, and the second run was the same trap that Skip Hicks had run for a touchdown against USC in 1996.)

The series evoked a nagging concern that the Bruins, ranked last in the Pacific 10 Conference in rushing, stubbornly run the ball up the middle even when the defense repeatedly stuffs the play. In a 29-10 loss to Oregon, before the injury to star tailback DeShaun Foster, UCLA ran for minus-nine yards.

"You can't abandon your running game just because you're not getting five yards every time," offensive coordinator Al Borges said. "You have to be hard-nosed and hard-headed about running the football if you're going to be a winning team."

But are the Bruins hard-headed about where they are running the ball?

Said tight end Bryan Fletcher, "It's a simplified offense. [Toledo] wanted to make us a more physical team. The running plays have been no tricks, no misdirections, just line up and run straight in your face. We haven't run as many misdirections as we did the year before. It's just as effective if we execute. We don't execute in every game."

Toledo pleads guilty to the charge of simplifying the offense. After the Bruins stumbled from 10-2 in 1998 to 4-7 last season, Toledo said he and Borges realized they'd made the mistake of believing inexperienced players, even inexperienced quarterbacks, could immediately duplicate the success McNown had in running a complex offense. Then Paus got hurt in the season opener, and Toledo and Borges further streamlined the playbook for backup quarterback Ryan McCann.

Toledo said he might have been seduced by the success of the Cliff's Notes playbook in victories over Alabama and Michigan. The Pac-10 opponents, already familiar with the UCLA offense, now had to prepare to defend fewer plays.

"When you don't have a lot of things going on, it's easier to defend you," Toledo said. "We tried to develop more of a KISS system--keep it simple, stupid--so that we wouldn't beat ourselves if we executed. Maybe that backfired a little bit."

With Paus back, Toledo said, he is returning discarded plays to the game plan as fast as the players can relearn them.

Backup quarterback Scott McEwan, in his fourth year in the program, said the offensive framework is no different today than when McNown led the Bruins to glory.

"It's a very sophisticated, tough-to-learn offense," McEwan said. "Cade struggled early too. In his senior year, he had the experience, and the whole offense just jelled.

"If we can get a steady quarterback, it would really make a big difference. First it was Cory and Drew. Then it was Cory. Then it was Ryan. Then it was Cory, then Ryan, now it's Cory again.

"Cade never came out for four years. With this offense, we need a quarterback to stay in there. If Cory can stay healthy, we can get our offense back to where it was."

And Toledo's family will love him unconditionally once again. After the Bruins stormed back from a 21-point deficit to beat Arizona State, 38-31, Toledo said he was celebrating with friends and family when a gentleman named Chip Humphries challenged the coach on his allegedly conservative play calling at the end of the first half.

Chip Humphries is Toledo's son-in-law.

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